A Homecoming of Sorts

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"In the meantime, you need to try not to look so sour around her," said Philomena, batting him on the arm. "You'll make Tancred suspicious that something is going on."

"Intemperate and rude, and now sour," said Rainhart. "You are determined to cut me down to size."

"For your own sake." Philomena turned, and aimed the parting attack over her shoulder. "Every time we reach a new city I worry that you're not going to fit through the gate."

* * *

"Is homespun really necessary?" Holle sighed.

"You know it was," said Rainhart as they crept along the hedgerow towards the walls of Breg town. "Anything else is too conspicuous."

So far, they had met neither guardsmen, nor merchants, nor refugees on their approach to Breg. The gates were shut tight: the watchmen on Breg's high walls would have seen Tancred's army coming. The city was preparing for a siege.

However, they didn't intend to respect Valdon's desire for a long war of attrition. Rainhart, Philomena and Holle would sneak into Breg to get an idea of what the situation was, and plant the thought in the minds of the Cimbra barons and the captains that they had done the wrong thing by Tancred. Then, tomorrow, Tancred would ride with the Teuta and the Jovanis up to Breg, call Valdon out, and they would all bear witness to a mass defection on the field.

It had a kind of symmetry that they were now trying to break in to Breg wearing the same ratty clothes they had worn to break out.

Holle shook her head. "My question has broader scope."

"You mean," said Philomena, "why must anyone wear homespun? Why can't the poor and wretched get around in cambric and velvet, allowing us to disguise ourselves in style?"

"Well?"

Ahead of them, Rainhart snorted. "A question for the ages. Was the poacher's path this way?"

"Over there," said Philomena. "Near those rocks."

"Right. Thank you." Rainhart ducked through a gap in the fence and crept towards the entry to the poacher's path. Rainhart tugged aside the rock and slipped into the dark passageway.

For a while they walked in silence through the darkness. Then Holle broke it by saying, "Do you think mother and Maldwyn are all right?"

Philomena blinked, realising that it was the first time either of them had mentioned their mother or brother since Monsilys. What an odd family.

"I wonder if Maldwyn is intending to marry Valdon's niece," Rainhart said grimly.

"I wonder if he would," said Philomena, thinking again of Princess Idella. It was not difficult for her to imagine Maldwyn casting her aside in favour of a wife who could give him the power he'd always coveted.

"If he does, we may have to consider a new motto for House Reuz," said Rainhart. "Whatever it takes, perhaps."

"I pity Maldwyn if his ambition leads him to such foolishness," Holle replied sharply.

"Ho, who goes there?" called a voice in the darkness.

"Three travellers," Rainhart called back. "Seeking admission to Breg."

A door opened, spilling yellow light into the passage. "This is not a traveller's way," said a woman, her head silhouetted in the light.

"We used it once before," said Rainhart, stepping forward. "We mean you no ill."

The woman narrowed her eyes. "So you did," she said, "on the night Tancred Ansgar the Regicide fled Breg."

"We know nothing about that," said Rainhart. "We are simple folk seeking to transact business in Breg and be on our way. The main gates are shut tight."

"Come though and be welcome, then," said the woman, pushing the door back. Philomena caught the backwash of Holle's power as she passed the woman.

Wasting little time, they left the poachers' den and slipped into the street. This part of town was unfamiliar, but it was difficult to mistake the direction they should walk in: the castle loomed, casting a long shadow over them. Now Philomena led, being the most familiar with Breg. Soon enough they reached a road she recognised.

Breg was strangely quiet. Light shone through shuttered windows, but folk had closeted themselves inside, fearing the storm they knew must be coming. Philomena had expected that there would be more soldiers about, but perhaps they were up in the castle.

"Something is wrong," said Rainhart, frowning.

"It's too quiet," Holle agreed. "Can you read what's going on?"

"Come on, we need to get to the castle," was Rainhart's reply.

Unchallenged, they made their way up to the curtain wall of the castle and around to the postern gate through which they had escaped months ago. Rainhart went still, then said, "One guard." The frown hadn't left his brow, and his lips were pressed into a thin line.

Holle nodded, and a moment later, the postern gate was unlocked and they were through into the castle. Philomena paused and patted the guard on the shoulder. Forget us.

His eyes went distant, as if he were looking through her. She caught up to the others, sneaking around the little courtyard and into the keep.

Rainhart gestured for Philomena to precede him. "It's safe," he whispered.

"All right." Philomena found the still place, and concentrated on the instruction, Don't notice us, sending it out to the minds she could feel nearby. The castle, like the town, seemed empty. A shiver went up her spine. Perhaps Valdon's men were all wearing darkwood now. Perhaps the castle was swarming with enemies that they couldn't sense.

Heart pounding, she stepped out of their little shadow and into the hallway. Every nerve buzzed with anticipation of a footfall or the echo of voices.

Rainhart hesitated for a moment, then took off in the direction of the royal wing, covering the long hallway in a loping run.

Philomena and Holle followed more slowly. It was late in the evening, but not so late that all the household would be abed. There weren't even any servants in the halls.

They caught up with Rainhart just as Philomena's senses warned her of someone approaching. Through the burst of tension, she managed to find and hold the stillness in her mind. Don't notice us.

Rainhart pressed against the wall, his attention fixed on the direction of the footsteps. A maidservant appeared at the far end of the corridor, her arms laden down with folded tapestries. They watched, frozen, as she hurried past without sparing any of them a glance.

When she was gone, Philomena released the breath she had been holding. "Thank the Blessed few that worked," she said.

But when she looked at Rainhart, he didn't seem relieved. His eyebrows had drawn down over his stormy grey eyes, and there was a tense flicker at the corner of his mouth. "We have a problem," he said.

"What is it, brother? What on Aea is going on?" Holle put her hand on Rainhart's shoulder and Philomena watched him control an instinctive flinch.

Rainhart looked up and down the hallway as if he might discover an army hidden behind the tapestries. But there was nobody. Eventually he said hoarsely, "Valdon, mother, Maldwyn, the barons, they're not here. None of them are."

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